WSJ’s Wrong Conclusion on Frederick Taylor
The WSJ has it wrong on manufacturing, once again. Not that I expect the Wall Street Journal to be a friend of the “working man,” I do expect their columnists to have a better understanding of manufacturing and factory workers, given it is such a large part of our economy (the WSJ would be shocked to hear that, even given recent articles). The WSJ consistently writes about manufacturing as something that should have all been offshored long ago, so I’m not surprised they get it wrong on Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “Father of Scientific Management.”
The WSJ starts their piece by laying out a brief history of Taylorism, starting with the typical manager belief that most workers are lazy and slow and motivated only by money:
It’s the age-old lament of managers, as expressed by Frederick W. Taylor, an industrial engineer and so-called father of scientific management, who inspired America’s efficiency craze in the early 20th century. Mr. Taylor didn’t think much of the common laborer’s work ethic. Where machines could run steadily for 24 hours, their human operators would “soldier” — deliberately slow their pace.
“The tendency of the average man is toward working at a slow, easy gait,” he said.
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Mr. Taylor also believed that workers could be motivated only by money. But if they were paid a flat day rate, they had no incentive to produce more than yesterday. If they were paid by the piece, they knew from experience their employer would likely cut the piece rate. “When a naturally energetic man works for a few days beside a lazy one,” Mr. Taylor wrote, “the logic of the situation is unanswerable. ‘Why should I work hard when that lazy fellow gets the same pay I do and does only half the work?’ “
The column goes on to highlight some of the failings of Taylorism, albeit in a very indirect way (and in a way that, I believe, missed the point entirely).
They say, without negative commentary:
Using rules of science, not rule of thumb, management found the “one best way” to do every job, even such a basic task as shoveling.
That’s problem one with Taylorism — the MANAGERS, the educated ones, were tasked with determining the best way of doing something. That’s one area where the Toyota Production System and Lean best the Taylorist approach. With Lean/TPS, the workers are the ones to determine the best way, the best methods. Sure, management has oversight, but the Lean concept of “Standard Work” isn’t something that’s handed down to workers from on high.
Mr. Taylor persuaded several large companies to adopt his system, with varying success. It was a slow and painful process convincing workers only to do, not to think. Many manufacturing employees were first-generation immigrants from Germany and Great Britain, where work had traditionally been associated with subjective and independent craftsmanship. Union leaders denounced Taylorism as inhumane, and bills were introduced in both houses of Congress forbidding the use of stopwatches in government work.
If there was any Toyota-like notion of “Respect for People”, the Taylorists would have never WANTED to convince workers to only do, not think. The WSJ doesn’t point out any sort of problem with that mindset. I’m sure they find it perfectly natural that manufacturing “workers” should only work, not think. As for Congress banning stopwatches, it’s no wonder — the WSJ piece points out that Taylor used hidden stopwatches, another Taylor approach that ranks low on the “Respect for People” scale.
The second failing of Taylorism was the notion of piece-work pay. Piece-work has long been considered to be an enemy of quality and an enemy of Lean. In my upcoming Podcast with David Mann, he talks about how Steelcase moved away from piece-work early in their Lean journey. With piece-work, the workers had incentive to keep cranking out parts that customers didn’t need, not a good approach.
The WSJ points to the failure of Taylorism, but again, draws the wrong conclusion. They say:
But as Mr. Taylor should have known, his system was doomed in all but a few settings. Soldiering was a force of nature, not subject to human rules of science. “Rates of work are not determined by chance or by the quirks of individual personality,” wrote Hugh G. J. Aitken in “Taylorism at Watertown Arsenal,” his 1960 study. “A norm of output is a universal feature of all organized groups, set and maintained by the group itself and often defended by highly effective sanctions.”
Basically, they are saying the Taylor system was doomed because the collective power of lazy workers won out over Scientific Management. Taylorism is hardly dead. I’d argue it is STILL the basic of the dominant business thinking of the day (as the WSJ so often illustrates). “Pure” Taylorism (with its piece-work pay) might not be the norm, but most of the business world still thinks that the educator managers are the ones who have to design all processes and fix all problems.
Taylorist thinking is threatened mainly by Lean Thinking and the Toyota Production System, a system that agrees on creating a “current one best way” — a best way that is created with worker input and is IMPROVED upon over time (the notion of “kaizen” or continous improvement). When Lean is the dominant mode of business (if that happens), then we can write the obituary about Taylorism and Taylorist thinking.
Ironically enough, the WSJ article raises an idea that *is* very valid and relevant today:
Mr. Taylor’s system might have ended up on the towering junk heap of short-lived management fads except for the highly publicized Eastern Rate Case. In 1910, after the railroads awarded their workers a wage hike, the operators requested a compensatory increase in their regulated shipping rates. A group of eastern trade associations, trying to keep down their shipping costs, retained Louis Brandeis to argue before the Interstate Commerce Commission the railroads didn’t need more income, they needed to make their operations more efficient. In fact, Mr. Brandeis argued, the railroads could save $1 million a day simply by using the principles of scientific management.
The rate increase was rejected, and the public was entranced; everything from schools to churches to households could be operated more efficiently.
The railroad was making an old “Mass Production” thinking argument: my costs (labor) went up, so I’m entitled to pass along a price increase to my customers. Toyota thinking teaches us that the MARKET sets prices and that prices often have zero relation to your internal costs. Brandeis argued, as Toyota would, that you have an obligation to reduce costs through efficiency improvement. You can’t rely solely on passing along costs, your customers won’t accept it for long (if they have a choice). Even today, far too many companies whine about how they “have” to pass along costs, it’s a topic that I write about often here on the LeanBlog (as do other lean blogs).
What do you think? Is Taylorism dead? Long live Taylorism? Should I quit picking on the WSJ?